When you write about war, Barbara Tuchman once told aspiring historians, write as though you don't know who won. That's hard to do. It's just as hard to write about which presidential candidate will win a tight race, or even a presidential debate. Who among the smug punditry would have predicted Mitt Romney's repeated knockdowns of Barack Obama in their first debate?
The pundit buzz had been that the re-election of the president was inevitable; it was time to uncork the Champagne. The debate proved the celebration was premature.
Some inevitable presidents have lost in the long run; some in the short run. Who was more inevitable than Hillary Clinton, who didn't make it past the nominating convention? Harry Truman is the patron saint of lagging inevitable presidents, to the historic humiliation of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper's infamous early edition front page in 1948, "Dewey Defeats Truman," even became a postage stamp.
Still, the iron law of unintended consequences and the inevitability of unpredictable events continue to keep doubt alive. Voters who have made up minds speak with smug arrogance to anyone who disagrees. The astonishing first presidential debate does not predict the outcome of the election, but it should be a lesson in humility to the wise guys who think they know it all.
I overheard this typical and telling conversation the other day between a man and a woman, obviously friends, that grew heated over coffee in a Manhattan cafe. "So what do you think of Mitt Romney's 47 percent?" he asked with an exuberant gloat. The young woman shot back, "What do you think of the president's changing stories about what happened in Libya?" Both aimed for the obvious, and their friendly argument demonstrates how partisan gotcha games move the campaign conversation away from what was supposed to be the killer issue for November: jobs, jobs, jobs.
These two voters offer the latest snapshot of where decided voters are. But the important voters, as the campaign rattles past the first of the three debates and into the homestretch, are those who still haven't made up their minds. Their ballots will determine the winner.